My wife and I traveled to Florida this past week to attend the funeral of my uncle, who lived in northern Florida for the better part of the last 30 years. After my paternal grandparents migrated from Sepastia and Adana (with grandpa’s three-year stint in the Armenian Legion), they settled in Massachusetts, where our extended family established roots. Most of our greater family originated from either Indian Orchard (“the Orchard”) or Franklin, Massachusetts. Spending my summers on my grandparents’ poultry farm in Franklin afforded us a unique perspective of Camp Haiastan—attending as a camper and visiting as a “local.” Eventually, a branch of our family moved to California, to Los Angeles and San Jose. Another branch of the family from my parents’ generation moved to Florida.
The primary purpose of our visit was to attend my dear uncle’s funeral, but we also had the opportunity to see several relatives who are all in their 90’s. Uncle Charlie, my father’s youngest brother, moved to Florida to retire. He was 91 and had served on the Camp board for many years during his time residing in Franklin. Uncle George and Auntie Rose, also poultry farmers from Franklin and remarkable individuals with keen insight and vigor for life, retired to the same area many years ago. One of their sons and his wife live close by to provide family support. Aunt Vivian lives in the area and is the senior member of the clan at 98. Her daughter and husband also live in the same town. We commonly refer to them as “Armenian aunts and uncles,” although they are technically my father’s first cousins. They have always been aunts and uncles to us and were indispensable parts of our upbringing.
During times of loss, it is natural to seek the comfort of those we trust and love. The loss of a close relative is a time to grieve, mourn, remember and be thankful for the impact they had on our lives. A loss within a nation is very similar. Each generation of Armenians has suffered terrible losses and has mourned those tragedies before recovery can begin. For our grandparents, it was the Armenian Genocide with its human and territorial theft. My parents’ generation experienced losses associated with a world war, when many went to serve and not all returned. Most of our elders never discussed the pain of their survival in the horror of war. Today’s generation is reliving the losses of our survivor generation with the vivid observation of the atrocities in Artsakh. As the injustice was unfolding, the pain was heightened by our feelings of helplessness.
It is odd that a people plagued with division instinctively have an affinity for each other. It is our relationships at various levels that sustain us, replenish our approach and take us to new levels. We continue to rely on each other for identity.
While the wheels of justice move slowly or may not exist, we have but one outlet to mourn and recover. We are sustained by the power of our familial and community relationships. After the Genocide, many compatriotic unions were established from their villages of origin in western Armenia. They were a bonding force to bring some level of transitional comfort during those horrific times. Armenians still get excited when they have chance encounters on campuses or through professional experiences. During my business travels, while my colleagues would go to the hotel bar or tourist sights, I would often explore the local Armenian community. It was not a unique practice. Many Armenians have had similar experiences. It is odd that a people plagued with division instinctively have an affinity for each other. It is our relationships at various levels that sustain us, replenish our approach and take us to new levels. We continue to rely on each other for identity.
I recently read the address by Noubar Afeyan at the Mirror-Spectator celebration, sharing his thoughts on our unjustly imprisoned former Artsakh State Minister Ruben Vardanyan. The original visionaries of the Aurora Initiative, including the late Vartan Gregorian, created a synergy of unprecedented thinking and mutual respect. I could feel the concern for Ruben in Noubar’s address. Projects like these require resources and vision, but relationships give us the courage to expand our thinking. Noubar is here, and Ruben is jailed in Baku, but the relationship endures. It is the same for the thousands of relatives, organizational colleagues and personal friends who we call the global Armenian nation.
When I was in Florida, I thought a great deal about the family relationships that have made us who we are today. Our extended family placed a very high value on respect for our elders. In my youth, our family came together frequently, but we were never allowed to run off with our cousins until we had given proper attention to our older relatives. Over the years, it has become clear to me that this was not a move for control by our parents and grandparents. They gave us a gift of learning and gaining wisdom from these people. We would spend countless hours listening to them and watching their every move. In my hyphenated Armenian life, I played with my buddies in the neighborhood during the week. My friends knew, however, that I was rarely available on weekends, since we would either visit relatives or host them in our numerous backyard kebab picnics. These relationships developed because our parents believed, based on their inherited values, that family bonds are essential in receiving the joy of life and managing adversity. It was difficult to maintain this lifestyle alongside work and local community activities, but it resulted in a sustained Armenian identity and family relationships that have guided our lives for decades. I watched how the family came together in times of loss but also to share moments of happiness.
It is a daunting thought that my peers and I are separated from becoming the elder generation by just these six individuals. My entire life, I have had the privilege of receiving guidance from my elders in a nurturing environment we call the Armenian family. My relatives in Boston, San Jose and Florida are between 95-98 years old. Auntie Dot is 96 and anchors the family in Boston, along with our Uncle Garo at 95 in Franklin. It is truly a blessing to be in their midst. This trip was special, given the substantial time with each of them to catch up, laugh and reminisce.
My cousins recently observed that growing up, we had the benefit of mentoring from aunts and uncles in moments when our parents would have been less effective. It was not a threatening experience but rather gave us advice and made us feel more secure. Were there moments when we may have been less than gracious? Sure, but the long-term impact has influenced how we choose to parent. The role of grandparents has always been very important in our family model. Many Armenians grow up adoring their grandparents. Many of our childhood experiences were under duress due to societal changes and geographic proximity, but the emergence of two income households has increased the supporting role of grandparents and added depth to the relationship. Grandparents are capable of communicating and supporting children in unique ways that can bolster the values that will guide our youth. Will this cultural norm continue to fuel our Armenian identity? It will take continued commitment by all of us.
Our trip to say goodbye to our uncle was a reminder that our time is finite but full of blessings. My Uncle Paul in California is 96 and very active. He moved in 1963, settling in San Jose in 1968. He vowed not to let geography impact our relationships. He and my aunt have spent the last 55 years illustrating that point, with countless trips east for weddings, anniversaries and other events. This summer, he and his family came to the east coast three times for weddings. The beauty of this commitment is that his nieces and nephews have visited him many times in California. It is role modeling at its best. Our identity is seeded in what we hold in common. Uncle Paul has spent many of his visits documenting our family history. He wrote a genealogical history a few years back, which he now teaches to our younger generations. It was a picture of beauty at the end of our daughter’s wedding to see Uncle Paul “holding court” with our emerging generation, filling in the blanks for them and motivating them to seek answers. This generation has a wealth of knowledge, as children of Genocide survivors, who were born into an economic depression, served to save the free world and provided a safety net for succeeding generations.
Most people spend the majority of their lives establishing and developing relationships. Family, professional and community relationships form the essence of human outreach. We also strive for a personal relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, which takes us beyond our earthly existence and introduces us to the importance of salvation and eternity. It is these relationships that open the path for our identity. We must utilize our relationships to work through the sense of loss. We must stay active in our communities, support the efforts to assist those deported from our Artsakh and stay informed so we can add value. Building and maintaining these relationships should be a very personal matter. Maintain important relations, encourage your children to be involved with peer relatives and heal the wounds that keep us apart. There has been a recent surge in our pan-Armenian thinking, as more Armenians recognize the importance of collaboration. I can’t think of a better enabler for pan-Armenian behavior than investing in meaningful relationships.